[I’ve updated links on this 2008 posting] There are useful critiques of Viola & Barna’s 2008 book, Pagan Christianity, over on Ben Witherington’s blog. To quote a bit from the second posting (July 1, 2008):
Small group gatherings are wonderful and can be very formative. But they are largely anthropocentric in character, they are largely about sharing with one another, and that frankly is mainly fellowship and koinonia and mutual upbuilding. It is the kind of thing that happened in Wesley’s society meetings and the classes and bands which met during the week, but as Wesley said—it is no substitute for public and corporate worship, because one day when the Lord returns all the world will be required to worship, with every knee bowing and every tongue confessing Jesus is Lord.
What we are tuning up for is the final great theophany and its proper human response—worship. What we are not tuning up for in worship is simply more fellowship and Bible study and sharing with each other. What we are turning up for is turning our eyes on Jesus and looking full into his wonderful face, and all such earthly sharing which are “the things of this earth’ fades and becomes strangely dim in the light of his wonder and grace.
and from Part Three of his review:
And this brings us to an important point. I have no problems with mutual exhortations, family sharing, and the like. There is a time and place for everything, and I think home groups and Bible studies are excellent times for such things. The problem of course with home groups is that they do not fulfill the mandate of Jesus to his disciples be ‘a city set on a hill, which cannot be hid.’ He might as well have said ‘a church hidden in a suburban home can’t be found’.
If you are meeting hidden in the suburbs in a home with no sign posting and no open invitation to one and all to come and join you, and no public evidence that corporate worship or a Christian meeting is happening there, you are not fulfilling the prime mandate to invite people into a public and personal relationship with God through coming into the living presence of God in worship in public. You just aren’t.
My point would simply be that what Viola and Barna are describing is a vital part of fellowship, and certainly not the focus of worship. Worship in the Biblical sense focuses on God and not mutual interchange and discussion. And since preaching is an essential part of worship, it too deliberately depends upon and fosters the environment of listening. Very different is a text like Col. 3.16 and it also provides no mandate for the ‘everyone should be able to do everything’ philosophy.
While on this general topic, Witherington’s later reviews of Frank Viola’s Reimagining Church are closely connected to the above.
Having spent a good bit of time in small-group based community before coming into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2007, my own take is: one can always develop/participate in local small-groups in one’s community no matter what ecclesial body one’s commited to. However, one can’t add Church to small groups, there just isn’t room and a “More, Lord” prayer will eventually lead one into at least some hierarchical ecclesial body (barring invincible ignorance). A large body can include smaller sub organisms: religious orders, parachurch orgs, small groups, etc. But the converse is impossible.